Organizers of this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro tried their best on Thursday to make the Zika virus seem not so scary after all.
In their final presentation to the International Olympic Committee’s executive board before the Games in August, the organizers said the virus would pose no health risk to athletes and visitors. They noted that the Games would take place during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, when mosquito populations plummet. Because of that, a spokesman declared with confidence, the rate of infection from the Zika virus “drops to very low numbers, very near zero.”
With the Games only about 60 days away, the public relations push was expected. And maybe the final sales pitch will make a few more athletes and visitors feel safe.
But for at least one American athlete, it was too late.
About the same time the Olympic committee and its guests were putting away their charts, papers and laptops, the cyclist Tejay van Garderen was announcing that he had withdrawn from consideration for a place on the United States team. A top professional who has twice finished fifth in the Tour de France, van Garderen was a likely bet to make the squad in Rio. But he is skipping the Games, he said, because he is afraid of contracting the Zika virus and possibly transmitting it to his pregnant wife and their unborn daughter.
Van Garderen, who competed at the 2012 Olympics, was expected to make the United States road cycling team because the hilly course in Rio suited his strengths as a climber. While other American athletes, including the soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo, have considered skipping the Games because of fears about the Zika virus, van Garderen may be the first potential medal contender from the United States to back out.
(Not everyone shares his concern. “It’s the Olympics, it’s the Olympics!” Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic gymnastics all-around champion, said Friday at a meet in Hartford. “Mosquitoes? Like, whatever, I’m going. This is my shot. I don’t care about no stupid bugs!”)
The choice for van Garderen — and for the golfers Marc Leishman of Australia, Vijay Singh of Fiji and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, who have all said they will not go because of the Zika threat — was probably easier than it would be for, say, a rower or a fencer, or a female soccer star dependent on a victory bonus for a big part of her income. For athletes in those sports and others, the Olympics are both the pinnacle of competition and a meal ticket; the opportunities and exposure lost by staying home cannot be made up.
Van Garderen’s wife, Jessica Phillips, knows this as well as anyone. A former national cycling champion, she said it would be harder for female cyclists to drop out because they didn’t have the option to make big money on a pro tour. In a phone conversation on Thursday, she put her husband’s decision in the bluntest terms.
“If Zika was in France and Tejay had to decide to pull out of the Tour de France, I’m not sure if he’d do it,” she said. “I’m pretty sure he’d still compete.”
Still, for weeks, van Garderen, 27, and Phillips had discussed the risks of his going to Rio. They discussed how much time he was already spending away from his family as he trained in Europe, how any trip to the Games would end not with a celebratory reunion but with a quarantine. And for how long? Van Garderen nearly missed the birth of his older daughter three years ago because of cycling. He didn’t want to miss the birth of this one, too.
They worried about the unknowns, about how long Zika stays in the system, whether it could be transmitted in ways the experts don’t yet understand.
And then there are the facts: Although most people who contract the virus have no symptoms or mild ones, Zika can make a person very sick. Detroit Tigers pitcher Francisco Rodriguez knows that firsthand.
This week, Rodriguez told ESPN that he had contracted Zika during the off-season in his home country, Venezuela, and that it had flattened him for weeks with body aches, headaches, vomiting and joint pain. He said it had taken him two months to feel like himself again. The story prompted Jason Day of Australia, the world’s top-ranked golfer, to say he was reconsidering his Olympic plans.
“He was sick for a month and a half, and we just don’t need that,” Day said Friday.
Olympic organizers don’t want to hear any of that. Maybe they were soothed by the World Health Organization’s pronouncement this week that postponing or moving the Olympics, which are expected to attract a half-million visitors, would not stem the spread of Zika. It was spreading very well on its own, thank you.
With two months until the opening ceremony, it’s tempting for everyone to pretend that Zika is just a blip on the pre-Olympic screen. People could just tally the money that’s been spent on preparations and the stadiums that have been built — and don’t forget the potential economic impact once the Games begin — and decide that it’s more than worth it to plow ahead.
The truth is that the Zika virus remains very scary, no matter how people spin it. And with the Rio Games looming, the fear of that threat is real.
The Games will go on. But they will go on without Tejay van Garderen.
Will he be the last athlete to opt out, or just one of the first?